Lehi's desert poetry

Lehi's desert poetry

In Lehi's day an inspired leader had to be a poet, and there is, in our opinion, no more remarkable episode in the Book of Mormon than that recounting how he once addressed his wayward sons in verse.

It was just after the first camp had been pitched, with due care for the performance of the proper thanksgiving rites at the "altar of stones," that Lehi, being then free to survey the scene more at his leisure (for among the desert people it is the women who make and break camp, though the sheikh must officiate in the sacrifice), proceeded, as was his right, to name the river after his first-born and the valley after his second son (2.6-8, 14?lang=eng#6-8, 14 1 Nephi 2:6-8, 14). The men examined the terrain in a place where they expected to spend some time, and discovered that the river "emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea," at a point "near the mouth thereof" not far above the Straits of Tiran. When Lehi beheld the view, perhaps from the side of Mt. Musafa or Mt. Mendisha, he turned to his two elder sons and recited his remarkable verses. Nephi seems to have been standing by, for he takes most careful note of the circumstance: "And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness! And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!" (2.9-10?lang=eng#9-10 1 Nephi 2:9-10).

The common practice was for the inspired words of the leader to be taken down in writing immediately. When Abu Zaid returned by night from a wonderful experience, Hariri reports, "We called for ink and pens and wrote at his dictation."10 Another time when a wise man feels inspiration upon him he calls, "Prepare thy inkhorn, and take thy implements and write."11 So Lehi might have spoken to his sons....

Ibn Qutaiba, in a famous work on Arabic poetry quoted a great desert poet, Abu Sakhr, as saying that nothing on earth brings verses so readily to mind as the sight of running water and wild places.15 This applies not only to springs, of course, but to all running water. Thomas recounts how his Arabs, upon reaching the Umm al-Hait, hailed it with a song in praise of the "continuous and flowing rain," whose bounty filled the bed of the wady, "flowing along between sand and stream course."16 Just so Lehi holds up as the most admirable of examples "this river, continually flowing"; for to the people of the desert there is no more miraculous and lovely thing on earth than continually running water. When the BanÄ« Hilāl stopped at their first oasis, the beauty of it and the green vegetation reminded them again of the homeland they had left, "and they wept greatly remembering it." It was precisely because Laman and Lemuel were loud in lamenting the loss of their pleasant "land of Jerusalem . . . and their precious things" (2.11?lang=eng#11 1 Nephi 2:11) that their father was moved to address them on this particular occasion. Two interesting and significant expressions are used in Nephi's account of his father's qaṣidah to Laman and Lemuel. The one is "the fountain of the Red Sea," and the other "this valley," firm and steadfast. Is the Red Sea a fountain? For the Arabs any water that does not dry up is a fountain. Where all streams and pools are seasonal, only springs are abiding—water that never runs away or rises and falls and can therefore only be a "fountain." This was certainly the concept of the Egyptians, from whom Lehi may have got it.17 Hariri describes a man whose income is secured and unfailing as being "like a well that has reached a spring."18 Nicholson quotes one of the oldest Arab poets, who tells how the hero Dhu 'l-Qarnayn (who may be Alexander the Great) "followed the Sun to view its setting / when it sank into the sombre ocean-spring."19

As to this valley, firm and steadfast, who, west of Suez, would ever think of such an image? We, of course, know all about everlasting hills and immovable mountains, the moving of which is the best-known illustration of the infinite power of faith, but who ever heard of a steadfast valley? The Arabs to be sure. For them the valley, and not the mountain, is the symbol of permanence. It is not the mountain of refuge to which they flee, but the valley of refuge. The great depressions that run for hundreds of miles across the Arabian peninsula pass for the most part through plains devoid of mountains. It is in these ancient riverbeds alone that water, vegetation, and animal life are to be found when all else is desolation. They alone offer men and animals escape from their enemies and deliverance from death by hunger and thirst. The qualities of firmness and steadfastness, of reliable protection, refreshment, and sure refuge when all else fails, which other nations attribute naturally to mountains, the Arabs attribute to valleys.20 So the ancient Zohair describes a party like Lehi's:

And when they went down to the water, blue and still in its depression, they laid down their walking-sticks like one who has reached a permanent resting place.21
In the most recent study on the qaṣidah, Alfred Bloch distinguishes four types of verse in the earliest desert poetry: (1) the ragaz, or verses to accompany any rhythmical repeated form of work or play, (2) verses for instruction or information, (3) elegies, specializing in sage reflections on the meaning of life, and (4) Reiselieder or songs of travel, recited on a journey to make the experience more pleasant and edifying.22 Lehi's qaṣidah meets all but the first of these specifications—and to be genuine it only needs to meet one of them. It also meets the requirements of the sajʿ, or original desert poetry, as Nicholson describes it: " 'rhymed prose' . . . but originally it had a deeper, almost religious, significance as the special form adopted by poets, soothsayers, and the like in their supernatural revelations and for conveying to the vulgar every kind of mysterious and esoteric lore."23[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 21, references silently removed—consult original for citations.